"Everything is as it should be."

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Post Oscar Musings

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Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes 47 seconds

The Oscars are over and it was a bit of a surprising night. Yes, Green Book won in an upset and Olivia Colman shocked the world by beating out Glenn Close for Best Actress, but the biggest shock of the night was that my Oscar picks were so dreadful (15 out of 24). But in a striking sign that this years award’s were so incoherent was that even with my awful picks I still won my Oscar pool…again…which in the big picture is really all that matters.

In terms of the Oscar show, I have to say the lack of a host was perfectly fine with me. Not having to suffer through some hackneyed bit or contrived comedy made the evening much more bearable. Some of the presenters were mildly amusing, some were not. Some of the winners had decent speeches, some of them not. Melissa McCarthy was funny, Awkwafina was not. Mahershala Ali’s speech was good, Spike Lee’s was not.

The trio who won Best Hair and Makeup and tried to choreograph their shared speech were an embarrassment to humanity. This speech made me want to have a new rule at Oscars going forward…whoever gives the worst speech of the night is executed live on stage at the end of the show. This would accomplish two things, first it would make people really prepare a speech and practice it so they don’t mess it up, and secondly the ratings for the show would go through the roof because America likes nothing more than competition and violence.

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I dvr’d the show and watched it later sans commercials and it still felt oppressively long. My solution to the Oscar show problem is to declare that there is no problem. The show is once a year and if it runs long who cares? Also, the Academy is concerned about dropping ratings, well, tough luck, ratings across the board are down. People simply don’t watch anything for more than 30 minute intervals at the most anymore.

That said, if you want to cut time off the show you could drop the short film categories and put them at the technical Oscar awards that are held at another time. I think the show should focus more on the craft of filmmaking and less on celebrity, which puts me in a very miniscule minority, so I don’t want the show to jettison the technical and behind the camera awards like editing or cinematography or even hair and makeup. But not televising the short film awards seems alright even to a cinephile like me.

Another thing would be to cut the musical numbers…or at least some of them. I know some dopes loved the Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper song last night, but good lord I thought it was just awful. And I did not need to see Jennifer Hudson and Bette Midler of all people sing totally forgettable songs. If you cut the song performances down to two you cut approximately 15 minutes off the show. Non-problem problem solved.

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As for the actual awards, the thing that sticks out to me is that Green Book winning Best Picture is a perfect encapsulation of the shit show that is our culture. Green Book is a good movie, it isn’t a great movie, but that said there was only one great movie nominated this year and that was Roma. Green Book is better than Bohemian Rhapsody, Vice and Black Panther but it definitely wasn’t better than Roma (or The Favourite). Green Book is a finely crafted, well acted and well-made film, it just isn’t an artistically made film. Roma is both an exceedingly well made film and an artistic vision made manifest.

Roma is a complicated potential Best Picture winner though because it is a Foreign Film, which have never won Best Picture, it is a black and white film, and it is a Netflix film, which makes it controversial in the movie industry that hasn’t quite come to grips with Netflix. For these reasons, Roma losing is at least understandable according to industry logic. I loved Roma with a passion, but I don’t think that the voters who chose Green Book over Roma did so because they hate Mexicans…I think they have their reasons that makes sense even if I disagree with them.

Unlike me, the elite pundit class is less nuanced in their feelings about Green Book’s win. The LA Times declared in its headline this morning that Green Book is the worst Best Picture winner of the last decade…and equal in its awfulness to Crash, which is the meanest thing you can say to a Best Picture winner.

The other and more insidious talking point making the rounds is that Green Book won because older White male voters in the Academy are racist. The reasoning behind this is that Green Book, because it is a story about racism told from a White man’s perspective and allegedly propagates the “White savior complex”, is “regressive” on race issues and anyone who likes it is racist. Therefore, Green Book winning Best Picture means that the Academy is racist.

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Of course, what this talking point fails to take into account is that the same allegedly racist Academy nominated BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther for Best Picture (and gave Best Picture to Moonlight 3 years ago), gave awards to people of color in 3 of the 4 acting awards, and gave awards to minorities in Adapted Screenplay, Director and Cinematography. The “Oscars Are Racist” people seem to think that these “good” outcomes only happened because of the non-old White Male voters and that the “bad” outcome of Green Book winning happened only because of the old White male voters.

This sort of twisted illogic, which is simply a short cut to thinking, is similar to the politics of declaring America a racist cesspool after electing a Black man as president in two straight elections. After Obama’s eight years in office, the cries of racism following Trump’s win were still deafening, with many saying bluntly that anyone who voted for Trump was a deplorable racist, even those who had voted for Obama in the previous two elections. This goalpost moving by the super woke in our culture does little more than lead people to throw up their hands and tune out any discussion related to race in America.

The New York Times ran an op-ed by philosopher Crispin Sartwell on Monday titled, “The Oscars and the Illusion of Perfect Representation” that made similar arguments to what I have been writing for the last few years, and that is using awards shows as a referendum on racial equality is a fool’s errand that actually undermines the genuine struggle for racial equality in America.

Mr. Sartwell makes the case that the issue of “representation” in films is a band-aid on a bullet wound that is little more than a distraction.

“Whatever the Grammys or Oscars looks like in the long run will have little actual impact on social justice. Perhaps, over all, the emphasis on what sort of person is on television has been a distraction from much more urgent matters. Imagine an America that gets the awards shows exactly right but in which, for example, mass incarceration or the internment of asylum seekers just ticks right along, or in which income inequality grows or residential segregation remains unchanged. It’s easy if you try: That’s liable to be the reality of 2020. And 2030, and beyond.”

As I have written in the past, my addition to Mr. Sartwell’s criticism is that not only are the award show representation battles a distraction but they actively undermine legitimate issues because award show “under-representation” is a myth that is provably false. When liberals decide to die on the hill of awards show representation they are not only striking a blow against their cause elsewhere but also fighting for an observable lie, thus decimating their credibility on other more important issues.

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I find these race based awards arguments to be so frivolous as to be absurd but I readily admit this sort of nonsense is going to get much much worse before it ever gets better, if it ever gets better. Major awards shows like the Grammys and Oscars have already been reduced to mostly affirmative action/quota competitions that have very little at all to do with merit and everything to do with virtue signaling.

As for as Green Book being a racist film, this carries with it a very uncomfortable side effect, namely that those calling Green Book racist are in essence calling the Black people associated with the film, like its star, Mahershela Ali (who won his second Supporting Actor Oscar last night), its producer, Octavia Spencer, and Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis, who passionately introduced and advocated for the film, Uncle Toms.

This is the problem that arises in woke culture, no one is ever pure enough, and the White people who are calling Green Book racist are actually calling the Black people associated with the film self-loathing racists as well.

Green Book is considered racist mostly because it is a story about racism told from the perspective of a White man. I also find this argument specious at best, for as Hall of Fame basketball player and extremely insightful cultural critic Kareem Abdul-Jabbar so astutely noted in his defense of the film in the Hollywood Reporter,

“The film is much more effective from Tony’s point of view because the audience that might be most changed by watching it is the White audience.”

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To Green Book’s credit, it at the very least attempts to try and grapple with racism, and yet just by taking on that issue from a White perspective is declared “not woke enough” by the woke gatekeepers who then quickly label anyone who likes it irredeemably racist. What woke culture tends to forget is the obvious, that America is a majority White country, and if you want to reach as large an audience as possible, connecting to that White majority through perspective is a rational maneuver for a film maker.

There is some talk that Green Book’s win is a result of a backlash against the backlash to the film. This makes total sense to me. Green Book was singled out as this “unwoke” abomination and I think voters who liked it simply kept their feelings to themselves and may have ended up voting for it out of spite just as a way to tell the politically correct brigade to fuck off. I understand the sentiments.

As I am fond of saying, “wokeness kills art”, and eventually it will kill commerce too, which is when Hollywood will really see a backlash to the backlash. In our current “woke” moment no one is ever woke enough, and so minorities winning 3 of the 4 acting awards and a plethora of the other prestigious awards is not enough, and Green Book winning is an apostasy because it doesn’t fit entirely into current rigid racial orthodoxy and sensitivities.

In my review for Green Book I said that if it came out twenty years ago it was a shoe in for Best Picture, but that it stood no chance nowadays. Obviously I was wrong, and in my defense the reason I was wrong is that I constantly under estimate my fellow man and woman. In the case of Green Book winning over Roma, I was wrong in thinking that Green Book had no chance, but right in underestimating the people in the Academy, who failed to give Roma Best Picture, not because they are racists, but because they have simple tastes.

©2019

Vice: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. Although a cinematic misfire of sorts, it is worth seeing for the extraordinary performances and for the civics lesson.

Vice, written and directed by Adam McKay, is the story of the meteoric rise of former Vice President Dick and his Machiavellian use of power. The film stars Christian Bale as Cheney, with supporting turns from Amy Adams, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell.

Vice is another one of those films of 2018 for which I had high hopes. I absolutely loved director Adam McKay’s last film, The Big Short, which brilliantly dissected the 2008 financial meltdown and I hoped that when he set his sights on Dick Cheney he would be equally effective in his vivisection of that worthy target. McKay proved with The Big Short that he was more than capable of turning a dense, intricate, complex and complicated topic into an entertaining and enlightening movie, a skill that would be desperately needed for a film about Dick Cheney.

Watching Vice was an odd experience as I found the film had multiple great parts to it, but on the whole, while I liked it, I didn’t love it and ultimately found it unsatisfying. I was so confounded by my experience of Vice that I have actually seen it three times already to try and figure out specifically why I feel that it missed the mark and is not the sum total of its parts. And yes…I realize that seeing a movie I don’t love three times makes me sound insane.

Why am I so interested in figuring out why Vice is not great, you may ask? Well, the reason for that is that Vice desperately needed to be great because it is such an important film for the times in which we live. Trump did not come out of nowhere…he is a fungus that grew out of the shit pile that was Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush/Cheney and Obama…and as we all know, past is prologue, so if we don’t fully understand and integrate the lessons of Dick Cheney’s nefarious political career, we are doomed to stay stuck in the tyrannical rut in which we find ourselves.

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Dick Cheney was a pivotal, behind the scenes player in American politics for four decades (70’s through the 00’s) and so bringing his sprawling yet mundanely bureaucratic career successfully to the screen is a massive and difficult undertaking. It is also an vital undertaking as the argument could be made, and Vice makes it, that Cheney’s underlying cosmology and his political and bureaucratic success are what has brought the U.S. and much of the world to the brink of collapse.

Sadly though, Vice is so structurally unsound as to be nearly untenable. McKay cinematically stumbles right out of the gate and makes some poor directorial decisions that lead to a lack of narrative coherence and dramatic cohesion that diminish the impact of this important movie.

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I could not help but think of Oliver Stone as I watched Vice. Stone’s Nixon is an obvious cinematic parallel to Vice in that it is a bio-pic of a loathed political figure whose career spans multiple decades. The problem with Vice though is that McKay not only lacks Stone’s directorial skill and talent, he also lacks his testicular fortitude and artistic courage.

In Nixon, which is a terrific film you should revisit, Stone and his cinematographer, the great Robert Richardson, go to great lengths to show us Nixon’s point of view and perspective, and it works in drawing viewers into the man who otherwise may have repulsed them. Stone and Richardson occasionally used the technique of switching film stocks and going from color to black and white in order to distinguish Nixon’s point of view and to emphasize flash backs and time jumps. (Vice certainly could’ve used this sort of approach to make the time jumps it uses more palatable and cinematically appealing)

Of course, Stone was pilloried for his dramatic speculation in Nixon by the gatekeepers of Establishment thinking, but despite the critical slings and arrows, it was the proper creative decision. Stone turned Nixon into a Shakespearean character and we knew him and understood him much better because of it, which turned the film about his life into fascinating and gripping viewing.

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Cheney, like his one-time boss Richard Nixon, is also cold and distant figure in real life, but McKay never emulates Oliver Stone and bridges that distance by using dramatic speculation in telling his story. McKay makes the fatal directorial error of only on the most rare of occasions allowing viewers into Dick Cheney’s head and giving them his distinct perspective and point of view. For the majority of the film the audience is forced to be simply spectators to Cheney’s villainy and not participants or co-conspirators, which undermines the dramatic power of the film.

The most interesting parts of the film are the two parts where we are actually given Cheney’s perspective and inner dialogue. The first time that happens is when we hear a voice over of Cheney’s thoughts as he meets with presidential candidate George W. Bush to talk about the Vice Presidency. In this scene we are given access to Cheney’s Macchiavellian musings about the man, Dubya, that he will use as an avatar to bring his dark vision to life, and it is intriguing.

McKay’s brief speculation of Cheney’s inner thoughts in the Bush scene propels the audience into Cheney’s head…which is where we should have been all along. We are then ushered out as soon as we arrive and are left with only a bird’s eye view of Cheney’s world until the final scene. Vice would have benefited greatly from McKay throwing the audience into Cheney’s head from the get go, but instead we get a rehash of Cheney’s greatest hits, or worst hits, depending on your political point of view, which is neither illuminating nor gripping. ( to be fair, McKay’s refusal to speculate on Cheney’s inner thoughts and motivations could be a function of the fact that Cheney is still alive and able to sue, but regardless of the reason, it does a terrible disservice to the cinematic enterprise)

McKay was obviously going to great lengths trying to be “historically accurate” in this bio-pic, but he falls into the trap of many, if not most bio-pics, in that he tries to recreate history instead of creating cinematic drama. McKay simply shows a series of well-known events in Cheney’s life (hey…remember that time Cheney shot somebody in the face!) without any new or interesting insights into them. In this way, Vice is less a drama/comedy than it is a docu-dramedy that merely skims the surface of its subject and re-tells history for those who already agree with its political perspective.

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The biggest hurdle though in telling the story of Dick Cheney is…well…Dick Cheney. When your film’s lead character suffers from an egregious charisma deficit and has created a persona of impenetrable banality, you have quite a hill to climb. Besides mastering the art of dullness, Cheney is also an unlikable and politically despicable person, which only adds to the burden that this film must carry. Unlike in The Big Short, where McKay was able to use multiple characters to propel the narrative, each one different and interesting in their own right, in Vice, McKay is forced to have Cheney be the sole focus and driver of the narrative.

As vacant a character as Dick Cheney is, Christian Bale makes him a genuine human being. Bale disappears into Cheney and crushes the role to such an extent that he solidifies his place amongst the best actors working today. Bale’s confident use of stillness and silence is volcanically potent. There is no wasted motion with Bale’s Cheney, and it is when he isn’t saying anything that he is saying everything. Bale fills Cheney with very specific and detailed intentions that radiate off of him and penetrate his intended target with deadly precision.

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The rest of the cast do outstanding work as well. Amy Adams is simply one of the best actresses on the planet and her work in Vice is a testament to that fact. Adams’ first scene as Dick’s wife Lynne is so dynamically compelling I nearly jumped out of my seat. Right out of the gate Adams tells the viewer everything we need to know about Lynne, she is smart, tough and will not put up with any bullshit. Adams’ Lynne is insatiable when it comes to power, and she is the Lady MacBeth behind Dick’s throne. Amy Adams has given a plethora of great performances over her career, but she has never been better than she is as Lynne Cheney in Vice.

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Sam Rockwell is also outstanding, playing the cocksure but dim-witted poseur of a president George W. Bush. Rockwell plays Bush as an unwitting moron and dupe who is so stupid he doesn’t know how stupid he really is. Cheney’s manipulation of Bush is seamless and entirely believable with Rockwell playing the insecure second generation President. Rockwell never falls into caricature with his Dubya, and fills this empty man with a delightful and at times poignantly meaningful nothingness.

Steve Carell is also great as the enigmatic Don Rumsfeld. Carell morphs into the irascible political climber Rumsfeld with ease and shows a deft touch in making Rummy a genuine human being, a sort of arrogant fly boy whose wings never get permanently clipped.

All in all, the entire cast do great work with Bale, Adams and Rockwell all deserving Oscar nominations for their work, and Bale and Adams very much deserving of the trophy.

As much as Adam McKay won the casting room, he did have other failures when it came to filmmaking. I am sure it is no coincidence that McKay hired editor Hank Corwin to work on his film, as Corwin edited Stone’s Nixon as well. Surprisingly since he was so good on Nixon, Corwin’s editing on Vice lacks a cinematic crispness and is one of the weak spots of the film. Corwin repeatedly uses a black screen for transitions which I found broke the pace and rhythm of the film and scuttled any dramatic momentum. Of course, this is not all Corwin’s fault, as McKay may have demanded that approach, but regardless of why it happened, it happened and the film suffers for it.

Another issue with the film was the use of a narrator. Well, to be more clear, it wasn’t the use of a narrator, but the choice of the narrator and how that character fit into the story. Jesse Plemons, a fantastic actor, plays the role of the narrator but it never quite comes together. Plemons is fine in the part, but considering the amount of information that needed to be passed along to the audience, a more direct and straight forward narrator would’ve been a better choice. Once again, Oliver Stone comes to mind and his mesmerizing opening to his masterpiece JFK, where Martin Sheen (and phenomenal editors Pietro Scalia and Joe Hutshing) masterfully set the complex stage for everything that follows.

As much as I was frustrated by McKay’s direction, there were some moments of brilliance. McKay’s use of Alfred Molina as a waiter explaining the crimes of the Bush administration was absolutely magnificent. His expanded exploration of the idea of the “Unitary Executive” was smart and well done too.

Other sequences by McKay that were simply sublime were when McKay would show the global and life altering power of the Presidency. In one sequence we see Nixon and Kissinger having a discussion about their Vietnam and Cambodia policy…and then we see the catastrophic results of that policy on regular people. The same thing occurs in relation to Bush and Iraq in one of the finer cinematic moments of the movie, where all of the power politics in America reduce people half way around the world to cower under a table in fear for their lives.

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There was one other scene that is worth mentioning, and not because it is so great, but because it reveals something nefarious about the film itself. In one scene where the principals of the Bush administration, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice etc., are debating whether to invade Iraq or not, there is a bit of dialogue which states in essence that Israel is opposed to the U.S. invasion because it will destablize the region. This is historically completely inaccurate and entirely at odds with reality. Why would Adam McKay put this bit of Israeli misinformation into his film that purports to tell the truth about the Bush administration? I think I know the reason why…but that is an uncomfortable discussion for another day.

In conclusion, as much as I wanted to love Vice because it shares my vision of the world and of the Bush administration, I didn’t love it. Cheney, like Nixon before him, should have been prosecuted and imprisoned for his crimes, instead of having his lackeys turned into exalted talking heads on MSNBC and CNN. If Vice were better made, if it were more coherent, cohesive and effective in its storytelling, it could have done to the Bush/Cheney administration, what The Big Short did to Wall Street…exposed them bare for the repugnant, amoral and immoral criminal pigs that they are.

Sadly, Vice doesn’t rise to the challenge, and so the historical myopia that pervades our current culture will persist and prosper. Liberals will continue to think everything was great before Trump and that Trump is responsible for all that is wrong in the world…and thus they doom themselves to repeat the cycle that brought us Trump in the first place. Just like Nixon gave us Reagan and Reagan gave us Clinton and Clinton gave us Bush/Cheney and Bush/Cheney gave us Obama and Obama gave us Trump…Trump will birth us another monster and it will devour us all unless we wake up and understand that it isn’t the individual that is rotten, it is the system that is rotting.

With all of that said, if you get a chance I do recommend you go see Vice, it is worth seeing for the exquisite performances of Bale, Adams and Rockwell alone. It is also worthwhile to see Vice to understand that as much as we’d like to blame others, be it Russians, Republicans or Democrats for all of our troubles, the truth is that Cheney bureaucratically maneuvered to give us the fascist tyranny for which we were clamoring. The fight is simply over who gets to control it the beast that is devouring us, and to see how much we can make selling rope to those who wish to hang us. My one solace to this national existential crisis is revenge, and the hope that I will get to see Dick Cheney and the rest of his gang at the end of one of those ropes before I die.

©2019